Randy Smith left his post as a partner in a law firm to become the in-house counsel for Regal in 1998. Since then, Smith’s career has been dedicated to increasing efficiency and access for customers and employees of the nationwide circuit. His involvement in bringing the Sony Entertainment Access System to Regal, an eyewear solution that makes moviegoing accessible to deaf and hard-of-hearing guests, set the stage for his eventual collaboration with NATO in bringing forward suggestions to the Department of Justice to ensure the future accessibility of cinemas in the U.S. Boxoffice spoke to Smith ahead of ShowEast, where he will be receiving the Al Shapiro Distinguished Service Award, in light of his commitment to charitable causes.
What was it about Regal that drew you to dedicate your time exclusively to them?
In the 10 years of my private practice, I had probably 50 or 60 different clients over that time period. I was always best with the management at Regal. They seemed to be a group of individuals that were very passionate about what they were trying to accomplish, very passionate about their business. They had very little ego. They truly had a desire to make a difference, with what they were trying to accomplish on a daily basis.
Why I ended up in-house is a little more convoluted. Greg Dunn, Regal’s CEO at the time, had solicited me to come in-house for several years. I was this private practitioner; I had worked a long time to get where I was and had no interest in going in-house.
I have a deaf son and I get this package in the mail one day: it’s information about deaf schools in the Knoxville area. It was unsigned; there was no information about who sent it to me. I found it a little odd and didn’t connect the dots, because I was otherwise preoccupied—until Greg calls me a few days later and asks if I got the package. At that time, I had been struggling with the education that our son was receiving—really considering whether we were going to relocate, because the deaf schools of interest were all either boarding schools or in Louisville, Kentucky.
Greg and I had worked together for a long time. We knew each other very well, he knew my situation. He sent me that, and that was kind of a trigger. That’s what ultimately tipped the scale for my coming into Regal.
On a related note, you were also instrumental in bringing the Sony Entertainment Access System to Regal, helping a new generation of deaf and hard-of-hearing moviegoers watch movies. What was that experience like?
I’ll be honest, I was not a moviegoer. I probably saw less than five movies in my life before coming to Regal or having children. I didn’t have the background, I wasn’t a movie guy. But when I came into Regal, they were doing this program with Tripod Films—they would get the studios to burn captions onto a few prints, and then would “bicycle it,” that’s what we called it then, from facility to facility. In essence, you would get one to three captioned films per year available for your deaf customers.
When I came into Regal, we were already doing that. At the time, we partnered with the Tennessee School for the Deaf, which is located in Knoxville. I’ll never forget this: we offered to provide free showings to their students, since there were just so few and far between opportunities when those kids could see a movie. So we had them out there one day. The first time we ever did it, I was talking to one of the counselors after the movie. He was telling me that these children, from kindergarten to high school, the overwhelming majority of them had never been to a movie in their lifetimes. That struck me as very odd. It was not something I had considered at the time. We were sitting there talking, we finished, I turn around and there are literally three busloads of kids signing “I love you” to me. It just kind of hit me: I’m not appreciating the impact of this social custom of going to the movies. It’s not just going to a movie, it’s part of our culture. It’s part of what people do. Everybody, whether you’re deaf or not. Your friends are going to the movies, particularly teenagers at the time. It was a big deal, and still is.
I think that inspired me to take a little more time to understand this issue and understand the need. Having a deaf son, I had some contacts in the deaf community. I started reaching out to them. In addition to that, some of the deaf advocates started pressing for more caption access. I met with these individuals across the country and learned very quickly that it isn’t just a movie. It is a social custom and they wanted to participate in it. So we made a decision, way back in the early 2000s, that we were going to work toward an access solution that would provide access to every show time every day. I went around the country telling these advocates that that’s what we were doing, even though we didn’t have the resources to do so.
At that time, the only available system out there, other than Tripod Films, was called Rear Window. The overwhelming majority of deaf individuals or advocates I spoke to, they didn’t like the technology. It’s a panel that would sit in the cup holder, and on the rear wall of the auditorium was an LED. The captions would run on the LED in reverse and actually pick up on that panel. It had some glare issues. They wanted open captions. We discovered, sometime around 2005 when the DTS system came out, there was a system that would project captions onto the screen. We started showing open captions when the content came with them. We soon learned that the individuals who came to the movies who did not need the captions, the overwhelming majority of them did not care for that access provided during the films. We saw a significant decrease in attendance.
We also engaged with NATO and discovered all kinds of issues. We had issues with getting the studios to provide content. We had issues with technology groups unwilling to become engaged in this process, because of the limited opportunities to make money off of this type of equipment. Then we had issues with the equipment that did exist, that would have building issues between the different types of systems. So as we started approaching the moment of digital—we all thought digital was coming a lot sooner—we decided this digital provided an opportunity to create personal captioning systems. We could provide captions at every movie, every show time, every day. Now the problem with that was most movies didn’t come with captions, and we had no personal caption technology to deliver that. And we had no standards.
With the help of NATO and many people who worked very hard, they finally got all these interested parties into one room and came up with the strategy to deliver content. I would say we worked for many, many years to get companies engaged on it. In 2007, we did a symposium for the tech advocates of all the technologies that were being developed. By 2010, all but one of those companies was still in the game. Each one of those symposiums gave us feedback from the deaf and deaf advocates. Yes, they would prefer open captions. But they would forgo open captions if they’d get access to every movie, every show times, every day. That’s what led to these combined efforts to get all these different groups together. By 2012 we had some technology options. We had the majority of studios on board to caption content. We had the ability to provide the access to consumers.
It was a big day for us. It did take us awhile to roll it all out. Many theater companies today are still trying to get all their technologies out there. For the most part, the majority of theaters in this country now are accessible to deaf people. It was a significant accomplishment.
Making the technology both accessible and sustainable was the first big hurdle, and then came the Department of Justice, which required that any changes to the regulations came from within the industry after close consultation with advocacy groups. How much of a challenge did that pose?
In 2008, the DOJ proposed rules that never got finalized. In 2010 they proposed rules that got invited. And I think in 2014 or 2015, they came up with some new rules. You hit the nail on the head. Although we had worked with these advocacy groups for years in trying to design the technology, when it came to the Department of Justice rules.
To some extent, they had a legitimate gripe. “Okay, the major circuits are out there doing it. But for us small towns across the country, we’re not getting the access we feel we deserve.” So they certainly weren’t hostile towards us, but they just felt it wasn’t working as quickly as possible for all locations. When the proposed rules came out, NATO and myself and some other individuals contacted these advocacy groups. We said to them, “We’ve worked together so long, why don’t we get together and come up with some regulatory language that’s going to work for everybody, instead of the Department of Justice just arbitrarily setting requirements.”
I’ll give you an example. We used to have these assisted-listening devices—headsets, earphones—the old ADA scoping requirements, which actually still exist, had this high required number. You’re talking about headsets that cost anywhere from 50 cents to as much as two dollars or three dollars a pair. What you would find when you’d go into these movie theaters is that there’d be a closet with nothing but the dedicated headsets, because you’d have to have so many of these things on-site to meet the scoping requirements of the regulations. But when the DOJ proposed these captioning regulations, you’re talking about technologies that cost between $300 and $1,200 apiece. And these same scoping requirements, which means you’d spend millions and millions of dollars on equipment that may or may not ever get used. Or, before it’s ever used, may be out of date.
That may have been the impetus to start the dialogue, but there were so many other things in the regulations. It was a great process. The advocates were fantastic. They certainly recognized that there were challenges to our industry, the way the rules were proposed. They came forward with legitimate concerns and commonsense approaches, to the point that we all sat down over a period of time and came up with what we thought was the best recommendation to the Department of Justice.
I’m told that’s never happened before, where the industry that’s being charged to provide the access is actually working with the individuals who are trying to serve where they come up with an agreement that they can present to the federal government and become law. For the most part, the Department of Justice accepted all of our recommendations until they became the law.
I’ve heard people throw around the term “historic agreement.” Maybe it is. All I know is it’s the way I think things should work. It’s not the way our government works today, but it’s certainly the way it should work. Where everybody can come together and find common ground. It was a great experience, and I’m glad we got it done.
You’ve also been very involved with Variety of East Tennessee. Can you tell us more about your activity with that charity?
I’m very soft-hearted when it comes to children. Being in a position to help disabled underprivileged children is a blessing. You almost feel like you should pay to have that opportunity. And Variety has done that in east Tennessee.
Something that breaks your heart is some of these families just don’t have the resources to provide some of the basic needs to these kids; it could be some kind of equipment to be able to get in and out of a bathtub. The struggles that these families face are tremendous.
There’s this program called Kids on the Go, which initially started with things like adaptive bicycles. You’ve probably seen the presentation at CinemaCon. Those bikes aren’t just for socialization. We’ve had a situation in the last couple years with a kid, I think he was seven or nine years old, who had never been able to walk on his own. After having this adaptive bike for several months, he walked on his own for the first time because it built those muscles so much. So these things are more important than anything we do. I almost feel like I should be paying somebody to be granted the opportunity to participate in these programs.
I certainly am flattered and appreciative of the recognition with this award, but there are so many people in this industry who do so much. Regal is right there in it through our foundation; we’ve donated over $100 million through various programs, including children’s programs. Giving back to the community is a priority at Regal; it’s one of our pillars.